Posted tagged ‘university reform’

Does anyone other than Harvard still need a Chemistry professor?

October 25, 2011

The answer to the question is yes, by the way. But it is a question that is now being asked (and for chemistry you can substitute various other disciplines).

But where does this question come from? Well, at a recent conference on the future of higher education in Madrid, a New York university president, David van Zandt, made the following comment.

‘I apologize to anyone here from Nebraska, but there is no reason to teach introductory chemistry in Nebraska in a classroom with 500 students. Not when you can pump in, say, someone from Harvard to give a video lecture to much smaller groups.’

He is not the first to have suggested something like this. The general thinking goes along these lines. In the age of instant internet connectivity, there is no need to have people in all corners of the world teaching their own versions of the basic academic subjects. Why not stream in lectures and tutorials from leading professors in a small number of key academic hubs? Then the local institution can add its own bit of intellectual property by following the Harvard professor’s lectures with their own more specialist courses. Students would still come to lecture theatres, perhaps, so that they can take part in the social and networking aspects of doing a degree, but their teachers will often be from somewhere else entirely – teachers they will see but probably never meet. So in Nebraska – or Scotland, or Ireland – we might end up with a much smaller number of senior academics providing original teaching, and a lot of teaching and research assistants doing the on-location back-up for the distant professor.

That’s all very well, in theory at any rate, if you believe universities are teaching centres for local students. But if you believe universities also have other fundamental responsibilities in supporting local and regional development – economic, cultural and social – and that they are the foundation for high value investment, then this model makes much less sense.

But it is clear that questions such as this will continue to be asked, and that universities need to develop a robust strategic model for development if they are to prosper in this kind of environment. I cannot answer for Nebraska (though maybe I’ll try to make a connection), but Scotland certainly needs to develop its own local intellectual property at this stage, as does Ireland. The chemistry professor will need to be in situ.

Why do our politicians not understand higher education? What can we do about it?

March 8, 2011

As noted yesterday, in Ireland a new government not even yet in office has set out its higher education stall, and from an academic perspective it isn’t pretty. There are no signs in the Fine Gael/Labour programme for government (Government for National Recovery 2011-2016) that the parties put much thought into the higher education elements, and it appears that are influenced by the general view that universities and colleges need to be centrally coordinated and controlled, and that the traditional way of arranging academic work and careers won’t do any more.

But Irish politicians are not unique. Across the English-speaking world in particular right now, governments are discovering a new enthusiasm to intervene directly in higher education. Partly this may be a product of the recession, as governments cannot afford to fund colleges, but feel they need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about them. At that point it is particularly attractive to suggest that the institutions don’t need so much money anyway, and that with proper state supervision they can make big savings.

Ironically this trend of bureaucratisation as we experience it here is the opposite of what is happening in countries that in the past used to exercise tighter controls. In places as diverse as Germany and China restrictions are being lifted, in the belief that more autonomous universities perform better. Universities are being encouraged to determine their own focus and direction, and to plan strategically.

In the meantime, over here governments appear to believe that what has been holding back the universities is too little control. So the politicians and officials want to determine the shape of the sector, the correct number of institutions, the appropriate terms and conditions of academic and other employment, the academic areas they should address, and the search for sources of income other than the taxpayer. They believe that there needs to be more accountability, by which they actually mean more reviews, audits and paperwork. They feel that public criticism of universities encourages them to be more excellent. And they believe all of this without ever feeling the need to present a shred of evidence to support it beyond a few anecdotes.

So, are the universities all helpless victims of political myopia? No, that’s too simplistic. In many ways they have reinforced these beliefs, though perhaps not deliberately or consciously. Top of the list of opportunities missed has been their reluctance to be more transparent. Ask a university representative how many hours staff work, or what the money is being spent on, or what standards today’s students achieve, or what the impact of university research is for society, and chances are you’ll get a complex and often impenetrable response. But nowadays everyone wants to have everything measured, while universities have often preferred a kind of intellectual vagueness. This is the age of accountability, and if you look like the one group in society that wants to escape from that, you will come under attack.

Also, if governments sometimes have unrealistic expectations of universities as instruments of economics and trade, some academics can come across as unnecessarily hostile to the idea that universities stimulate economic growth and investment. Of course university programmes should not be designed just to meet an economic agenda, but equally it is clear that universities, sometimes just by being there, are engines of growth – something that should be welcomed.

Politicians will determine our fate. We need to work with them, and to negotiate a modus vivendi with them. If we say, rightly, that policy needs to be formulated on the back of evidence, we too must be prepared to provide it. It is time for the academic community to be more effective in its own defence, so that the conditions that really do generate excellence can be protected, alongside the change and reform that we also need to contemplate. And once we do that, it is time for the politicians to listen.

Misleading commentary

July 19, 2010

Yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper contained an opinion piece by Marc Coleman under the heading ‘Highest-paid academics of Europe get yet another rise’. Actually, if you Google the name Marc Coleman you’ll get a choice of either a ‘mixed martial arts fighter’, or a self-styled ‘media economist, author and event speaker.’ I’d like to think that this piece was by the kung fu guy, but I have a hunch it was the event speaker. So I think our Marc Coleman here is the economics editor of radio station Newstalk, who also has a regular newspaper column.

In this particular piece Coleman delivers himself of some astoundingly facile comments on the French Revolution (à propos of pretty well nothing), before settling in to a theme he has pursued before and which he clearly enjoys: the unacceptable ways of the academic community. This is what he offers us:

‘As for nobility, there are many, but last week the nobles in the news were our academic elites. And if they and their royal cousins – government politicians – don’t wake up, we could be in for political chaos and economic disaster… On Monday, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) raised the pay of lecturers by between €4,000 and €10,000. The result will be the loss of part-time lecturers – the proverbial peasants – who work far harder and earn far less.’

I guess it’s important to correct this in case somebody takes it at face value. Those reading Coleman’s article without knowing the facts might conclude that TCD had implemented a general pay rise for staff – indeed, that is the clear message we are supposed to take from the piece. In fact that’s nonsense. As we have noted in this blog, Trinity’s decision related to the completion of a promotions round initiated two years ago, as a result of which 27 (out of a total of maybe 700) lecturers get a promotion in status, but for now no pay rise. Even if and when the pay rise kicks in, the impact on TCD’s budget will be tiny, and certainly won’t cause a loss of jobs for Coleman’s ‘proverbial peasants.’ But unless he didn’t inform himself at all before rushing into print, Marc Coleman knows this. What he has done is put a wholly misleading slant on a news item in order to have a go at the academic community.

The problem with such commentary is that it actually frustrates genuine attempts to produce reform. It is clear enough that academic practice will need to change further, and that universities will have to reinvent themselves and find different and better ways of conducting their business. But this is made immeasurably more difficult when hostile and misleading comments are made by those who have every opportunity to know better.

Is our traditional university model outdated?

May 17, 2010

Is this a description of today’s university you would recognise? – ‘The production line factory of education, in which ever greater numbers are taught by excessively traditional methods, by people who do not think themselves to be accountable to anyone, with little interdisciplinary interaction and few opportunities for independent thinking.’ No? Well, I’m afraid we might have a problem, because this was how universities were described by a senior businessman at a recent reception I attended, to the general agreement of most of those within earshot.

Nor is this just the kind of comment made by someone hostile to higher education for whatever reason. It’s not a million miles off comments that have been made from within universities, as in this article in the New York Times by Columbia University theology professor, Mark Taylor.

As I have noted repeatedly in this blog, the academic profession has been pushed against the wall by totally inadequate funding and an avalanche of policy pronouncements that often seem to owe nothing to proper analysis. However, in this state of stress we are not adequately addressing questions of university reform. Taylor’s argument in a nutshell is that the traditional university structure can no longer deliver what society needs from universities, and that our working methods have not adapted to an environment that has changed beyond recognition.

These are topics that will be addressed in the forthcoming conference in DCU – details will be posted here shortly. And this is a debate that is now urgently needed.

A new heavy touch?

June 14, 2009

The Irish Times on Saturday carried a report of a speech by Mr Tom Boland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, at a conference in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

‘Mr Boland said the era of light-touch regulation by government of higher education was drawing to a close. This approach, he said, has “given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision. It has given us mission creep, inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions which to a very great extent stand apart and aloof from each other.’

Tom Boland is a good friend of the university sector, and we need to take seriously what he says. Furthermore, there is little doubt that one of the biggest issues facing us over the period ahead is the nature and extent of the framework of regulation and the degree to which universities are externally directed. We also need to accept that his characterisation of the system quoted above is widely shared in the political system, and also more generally in society.

Some people working in universities may not find it easy to recognise the description of the sector. For the past decade universities have added large numbers of students for comparatively little additional money, they have become good at developing and maintaining strong research partnerships with each other, they have become much more serious at strategic planning, they have undertaken large-scale internal reforms, they have introduced quality assurance system, and much more. So is the sector still suffering duplication, inflexibility, fragmentation and a lack of cooperation?

We need to avoid the temptation to be defensive, and so it is only fair to say that there are still problems in the sector that need to be addressed. The view that some rationalisation is necessary, at least in terms of the avoidance of duplication of some courses, may not be unreasonable, and it is probably true that there is some fragmentation. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all that tighter bureaucratic controls are the answer, particularly as in most European countries the view is gaining ground that internationally competitive universities thrive in systems where there are lower levels of regulation and control.

But it is also impossible to avoid one other conclusion: that universities have been extraordinarily bad at communicating the quality of what they do and the extent of the changes they have undertaken to their stakeholders and to the wider public. We may feel that we have implemented all sorts of changes and provided hugely cost-efficient programmes of study; but this is not how we are seen by others.

I hope that the era of light touch regulation is not drawing to a close. But if we want to preserve and enhance autonomy and independence of action, we need to show a much greater sense of coordination and common purpose, as well as an ability to maintain efficiency and value. This needs to be pursued in partnership with the HEA and with government, but in the context of a clear sense of direction that we are able to demonstrate. And we need to have strong and articulate voices speaking on behalf of the sector to the general public.

What does university reform mean?

August 19, 2008

For much of this decade there has been a growing call for universities to reform, or be reformed. In 2001 the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU – now the Irish Universities Association) and the Higher Education Authority jointly published a report written by Malcolm Skilbeck (The University Challenged). This made a number of recommendations for improving the university sector, of which a large proportion concerned structural reform: the improvement of governance and management, the diversification of income through commercialisation and entrepreneurship, the improvement of strategic planning methods and monitoring of outcomes, and so forth.

In 2004 the Government-commissioned OECD report on Irish Higher Education (Review of Higher Education in Ireland) again made a number of recommendations for university reform, many of them concerned with improvements in management and governance.

Throughout this time the universities themselves were undertaking significant structural reforms – most of them undertaken first in my own university, DCU. They included the rationalisation of academic structures, the establishment of devolved budgeting and accounting, reforms of academic planning, and so forth. Some of these reform processes passed off without serious internal argument in the institutions concerned (as was the case in DCU), whereas in other universities there were considerable debates and disagreements; and in some cases the structural reform processes continued for some time.

All of this was accompanied by a fair amount of noise in public, political and media commentary about the need for continuing reform, although it would have to be said that some commentators seemed to be unaware of the reform processes already undertaken or even of the conditions which had preceded the reforms – the call for reform was often a mantra not greatly informed by analysis.

In fact, there is little doubt that reform was needed. Universities were not structurally well suited to dealing with an external environment that was making new and challenging demands of them, from the call to increase participation in higher education to the drive for more academic networking with business and with the wider community. Universities also on the whole did not conform to the emerging principles of good corporate governance.

Nevertheless, it is also arguable that the focus on structural reform took too much attention away from educational and research substance. Some institutions became so focused on – or even obsessed with – organisational issues that it became hard to identify the strategic goals of either those proposing the reforms or those fiercely resisting them. So it is possible that a good strategic analysis of how the pedagogical goals of higher education and the national needs for globally excellent research could best be met was initially not pursued with any real urgency. More recently, these issues have come into focus, partly helped by the processes for awarding resources under the HEA’s Strategic Innovation Fund and by a strongly strategic approach of research funding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland.

Right now, in 2008, it is likely that university reform will again become an agenda item in discussions between the government and the universities. As part of the strategic review of higher education announced by the Minister for Education and Science, and in the context also of the debate about funding and tuition fees, more questions will be raised about how universities are managing their affairs, the appropriate extent of their autonomy, and how they allocate and prioritise their resources.

It is not unreasonable for such discussions to take place, or for the public to want to see evidence that universities are well managed and are using their resources wisely. But it is also reasonable to say that we must focus more on what we do, and not always on how we do it. I have taken the view in DCU that the structural reforms we undertook in 2001-2002 were desirable, but that we should not aim for further structural or organisational changes for a while if we can help it, so that staff can work in as stable an environment as can be secured. University reform is often used by commentators as code for an assertion that universities are inefficient, customer-unfriendly, wasteful and elitist. In fact like all organisations we need to review constantly what we are doing and be open to continuing change, but almost every review that has been commissioned has concluded that the main obstacle to better performance is the inadequacy of resources. That is where the solution lies; and if we can find the answer to that, it will also be reasonable to require high performance, good value and efficient management, within a context of autonomy and innovation.